THE POWER OF COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT: SUCESSES IN INDIAN COMMUNITIES ACROSS AMERICA
Dr. Thomas Abraham
Global Organization of People of Indian Origin
(Keynote address at the 40th Anniversary of India Association of Nashville, March 8, 2003)
Projecting the U.S. Census of 2000 to 2002, the population of Asian Indians in the U.S. is estimated to be over 2 million. Adding another 250,000 people of people of Indian origin (mostly Indo-Caribbeans), the number of PIOs in the US will swell to 2.25 million.
Looking at the history of Indian community involvement in America, the thrust of early community involvement was for campaigning for India’s independence in the early 1900s with the Gadar movement initiated in 1913 in San Francisco and the India League in the 1940s. The early pioneers were more or less involved full time to campaign for India’s Independence, providing testimonies in the US. Congress and making favorable American public opinion through the media. Some of these pioneers included Lala Lajpat Rai, Shri Lala Har Dayal, Gobind Bihari Lal, J.J. Singh, Jay Prakash Narayan, Dr. Haridas Muzumdar, and Dr. B.R. Ambedkar. Their early community involvement was a huge success.
The 1950s saw a small group of Indian students attending various universities. Many of these students after graduation returned back to India while some of them stayed back taking academic and corporate positions. With the change in immigration laws in 1965, the doors were open for Indian engineers, doctors, nurses and other professionals. The students graduating from India’s prestigious schools such as the IITs and other engineering colleges started coming in large numbers in the second half of 1960s. The predominant Indian groups were the university based student associations. These groups consisting of first generation Indian students and some from academics from major universities formed the core of the organizations and community involvement. Their major objectives were to screen Indian movies and to organize India’s Independence Day, Diwali and other major festivals of India. Because of the movie revenues, one such club, Columbia University’s India Club could manage to save considerable amount of their income. A trust named Trust for Education and Progress was formed in early 1970s, which initially funded the Society for Promotion of Indian Classical Music and Arts (SPICMAC) in India. SPICMAC has now grown to a major establishment promoting Indian classical art forms in major universities and professional colleges in India. This is early example of a success story the Indian students helping India.
The first major community based group by the new immigrant group was initiated in New York with the formation Association of Indians in America (AIA). AIA organized its first Awards Banquet in 1974 at the Hilton Hotel. Considering the small strength of the community at that time, it was major effort. In 1976, AIA did an excellent job in getting Asian Indians listed as a separate category in the upcoming US Census of 1980. AIA also accomplished the Asian Indians to be listed as a minority under the Asian and Pacific Islander category.
The biggest drawback for AIA was that it could not reach out to the larger Indian population who just migrated in the late 1960s and early 1970s and the India Associations, which were already established in different parts of the country. These groups of immigrants from India formed Indian associations in large cities and smaller towns. Along with these, several language and religious based organizations were formed in all major cities. By early 1970s, there were about 15 organizations in New York alone. In a unifying effort to bring all these groups together, the Indian Consulate in New York took the initiative to form a Joint Committee of Indian Organizations. The Joint Committee slowly became a very active body, not only organizing the major Indian celebration such as the India Independence Day, Republic Day, Gandhi Jayanti. With more community groups enrolling as members of the Joint committee, a new dimension was brought in by the committee to participation in the American Bicentennial Celebrations in 1976 and Independence Day and Parade of Nations on July 4th, 1977. The Indian contingent was the biggest compared to all other national origin groups participating in the parade.
In 1975, India Festival Committee was formed in New York with the objective of organizing a major festival of Indian dances and music. They had their debut at the Central Park, which attracted over 5,000 people for an Indian program. It was a highly successful program with coverage in the various American media. The Indian Festival Committee went on further to organize Miss Indian New York pageant in 1980 and later Miss India USA in the mid 1980s and Miss India Worldwide in 1990. This pageant now covers the whole NRI/PIO population and India now, another success story of community’s involvement.
With the success of the Joint Committee in reaching out the various community groups, there was a move toward starting the Federation of Indian Associations (FIA) in New York. I as the Chairman of the Joint Committee took the initiative in forming the first FIA in the US with the active support of the member organizations of the Joint Committee in the later part of 1977. The FIA New York was officially launched in January 1978. From 1978 to 1981, it was fast growth for FIA with services such as medical counseling, employment counseling, emergency assistance, active involvement the Asian American community, participation in various festivals and fairs including one organized by the Bloomingdale. The early 1978 also saw FIA organizing its office in Washington, DC to campaign for a bill introduced by Senator Kennedy to provide massive US aid for the rehabilitation cyclone victims in Andhra Pradesh. In 1979, FIA campaigned with other Asian groups to declare the first week of May as Asian American week, which President Jimmy Carter signed as a law. This has now become, Asian American heritage month in May.
With the successful experiment of FIA New York, the next step was to reach out Indian communities in other major cities. In this regard, as President of FIA New York, I traveled to all major U.S. cities in the late 1970s. The New York FIA helped the Chicago community groups to form FIA Chicago. The dominant Indian group in Chicago, the India Leagues decided to change itself to FIA Chicago and accepted all the community groups as its members. With FIA New York reaching out to the larger community in America, the next step was to organize the First National Convention of Asian Indians in North America. The convention took place at New York’s Sheraton Center on Memorial Day weekend of 1980. Over 2000 people attended three day convention with delegates from 24 states. The convention also served as a meeting place for the various alumni groups. Now, we see a major thrust of alumni groups helping their institutions back home. We, sow the seed as early 1980. The National Federation of Indian American Associations was formed at this convention. In the first half 1980s, the NFIA promoted formation of FIAs in other cities. Cleveland, Los Angeles and Columbus followed suite while Philadelphia and Washington DC formed similar umbrella organizations with names as Council of Indian Organizations (CIO). In 1988, San Francisco Bay area formed FIA Northern California, while Washington DC area formed the FIA of the Capital Region in the mid 1990s. By the mod 1980s, NFIA became a formidable force with over 200 member associations as its members.
In 1984, at the Third Biennial Convention of Asian Indians, NFIA organized the first conference of Indian physicians. It was a challenge to bring the fragmented Indian medical groups, which had sprung up in different cities. NFIA organized White House briefings for the medical group following which an open forum was held in the evening. American Association of Physicians from India (AAPI) which had just been formed in Michigan and had a chapter in Boston suggested that they want to carry on the bandwagon for the whole country. NFIA agreed and handed over the coordination to AAPI. AAPI went on to become a bigger and active group in the later years. AAPI has now become the largest membership oriented organization. They have initiated and established several medical service programs in India. In early 2003, we saw another accomplishment for them, US Congress appropriating half a million dollar for a Diabetes project.
The 1984 NFIA convention also saw emergence of Indian American Forum for Political Education (IAFPE) playing an active role in the political education scene. IAFPE was founded by Dr. Joy Cherian in Washington, DC. NFIA and IAFPE worked closely in the later years. The mid 1980s also saw the three national organizations, NFIA, IAFPE and AIA working together. In fact, the three organizations joined together for a Regional Convention in Orlando in 1987. In an effort to reach out to the various Indian communities, NFIA also organized several regional conventions with active involvement and participation of the Indian associations in different cities, including the one we had in Nashville in 1988.
In 1986, NFIA took another initiative by organizing the first conference of Indian hotel and motel owners. Haresh Panchal, an owner of several hotels and motels in San Jose coordinated this effort. After the conference, a national meeting was organized in Atlanta where Haresh Panchal and several other NFIA officers including Niraj Baxi, Tarun Surti and Sharad Mehta attended. Asian Indian Hotel/Motel Operators Association (AIHOA) was formed at this meeting. AIHOA went on to become an active organization representing over thousands of Asian Indian hotel/motel operators.
With NFIA’s lead in organizing the national meetings for all Indians since 1980, another phenomena followed, i.e. all regional language based groups started organizing their own conventions. The Federation of Kerala Associations of North America (FOKANA) was formed after the NFIA general body meeting in Chicago in 1982, where eight Malayalees present at the NFIA meeting formed the organization. The national Telugu group, known Tegulu Association of North America (TANA) was the first one to form in 1978 even before NFIA formation. Similarly, other national language based groups were formed, such as the Kannada, Maharashtrian, Bengali, Oriya, Tamil, Assam and Rajasthani. In fact, these groups have larger attendance at their conventions than the nationally based Indian groups. Gujaratis, although constituting the largest among the language based groups, could not form a national group. However, they have Federation of Gujarati Associations of North America (FOGANA) which organizes the national Garba competition. Another reason why the Gujarati Diaspora could not come together nationally is attributed to the various national cast based groups from Gujarat already organized on a national basis including Swaminarayan, Patidar Samaj, the Brahmin Samaj, the Rajput organization and a relatively large involvement of Gujarati community in AIHOA.
In terms of political appointment, President Reagan appointed Dr. Joy Cherian as Commissioner of EEOC in 1987. This was the first major sub-cabinet level appointment on a federal level. Dr. Cherian served under three presidents, President Reagan, President Bush and President Clinton. Two other appointments under the Bush administration were Bharat Bhargava as Assistant Director of Minority Business Development Authority (MBDA), and Dr. Sambu Banik as Executive Director for Presidential Commission on Mental Retardation. The Clinton administration appointed Dr. Arati Prabhakar as the Director of National Institute of Standards and Technology Neil Dhillon as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Transportation and Dr. Rajen Anand as Executive Director of Center for Nutrition Policy under USDA. President George Bush Jr. administration appointed Bobby Jindal as the Assistant Secretary of Health who has just resigned to make a run for the Governor of Lousiana while Gopal Khanna was appointed as the Chief Technology Officer of Peace Corps and Karan Bhatia Deputy Under Secretary in the Department of Commerce. This is one area; the community groups need to concentrate. If you look at Indian American share of the Bush Administration appointments, we may have a total of 5 or 6 while the Chinese community has managed to take a lion share of the total 70 or more appointments. Here I do want to point out that our community involvement with other Asian communities has not been going strongly, except in some pockets such as Chicago and New Jersey. Most of the Indian American political appointments have been due to individual contacts with the political establishment and not by promoting our candidates through political organizations.
In terms of community’s involvement in American politics, it had its beginning in the late 1970’s. A major beginning was the 1982 elections, where the Indian community actively participated in 15 states and raised over half a million dollars for various candidates. This was a breakthrough for Indian Americans to participate in the political process. In 1984 and 1986, the community actively participated in the Presidential and Congressional elections. In 1992, several Indian Americans actively campaigned for Governor Clinton and President Bush. Similar efforts were continued in 1996 and 2000. Several community members have been elected to the various party positions in the Democratic as well as in the Republican Party. In terms of fund raising, Dr. Zach Zachariah of Florida has the distinction raising the maximum funds by any person for Bush/Quayle in their ’92 campaign.
In 1994, three Indian Americans ran for congressional Democratic Primary. Of these Prof. Peter Mathews won the Democratic nomination and received close to 40% of the total votes in the final election. Several others ran for the state elections, of which Kumar Barve and Upendra Chivukula won became legislative assembly member of Maryland and New Jersey respectively. Satveer Chaudhary won the election as a State Senator in Minnesota in 2000 and last year Swati Gandhi won the state assembly election in Iowa. There have been several mayors of smaller cities; Bala K. Srinivas of Holliwood Park, Texas; David Dhillon of El Centro, California; John Abraham of Teaneck, New Jersey; and Uperndra Chivukula of Franklin Township of Somerset County, New Jersey and Arun Jhaveri of Burien, a suburb of Seattle, Washington. However, if we compare our strength of 2.5 million to the 6.5 million Jewish communities, our share of the political offices is small. We need to promote ourselves more in the political arena starting with PTA, school board, local community boards, city, state and national elections. Where we have our candidates running for political office, we should come forward to support them. Now that Bobby Jindal has decided to contest the Gubernatorial election for the Govern of Louisiana, we should extend our wholehearted support.
In terms of legislative campaigns, NFIA and other community groups actively campaigned for preserve the family reunification clause in the early 1980s and were successful in their efforts. In 1987, when Reagan Administration decided to give massive military aid to Pakistan including Airborne Surveillance System such as the AWACS, NFIA immediately campaigned with congressmen and senators to stop this massive military aid. The then NFIA Secretary Dr. Jagat Motwani presented testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on the Indian community’s point of view. The community also organized a demonstration at the Capital Hill. Finally, the US Senate scraped the proposal to provide massive military assistance to Pakistan. From the community perspective, another important development in the mid-1990s was the formation of India Caucus at the Capital. With the support of all our community groups, the India Caucus was formed in the Capital, which has now over 130 members, the largest for an ethnic community. The India Caucus and the community need to be credited for defeating many anti-India bills and amendments (Burton, Brown, Rowling, etc.) introduced in the US congress in the last 10 years. The Indian American community can be proud that those anti-India Congressmen do not even attempt to introduce such bills now.
In 1988, NFIA launched an affinity Mastercard with the cooperation of J.C. Penny National Bank. This card provided a certain percentage of the card usage to a charitable trust account run by NFIA. The money accumulated was sent to educational and charitable activities in India as well as in the U.S. Similar charitable foundations have been started by several other groups including AIA, AAPI, AIOHA, Maharashtra Foundation, FOKANA, TANA, ATA, various FIAs and India associations, and religious and language based organizations. In the year 2001, after the Gujarat earthquake, American Indian Foundation (AIF) was launched with former President Clinton as its patron. The group raised millions of dollars for rehabilitation Gujarat earthquake victims and continues to support several other charitable activities. Another community group has launched Indicorps for graduating college students to take a year off to voluntary work in India. This is another successful community involvement.
In the 1990s, several new national organizations emerged with new groups of people involving in them. The young Indian American professionals formed Network of Indian Professional (NetIP) in the mid 1990s. Around the same time, The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) was formed in the Silicon Valley. Another group initiated by Dr. Krishna Reddy of Los Angeles, Indo-American Friendship Council, has been actively campaigning with Congressmen and Senators for better India-U.S. relations. Another community activist Ram Narayan has been providing online information on issues affecting India-US relations and issues of Indian community.
In 1989, NFIA took the initiative to reach out the NRI and people of Indian origin (PIO) communities all over the world. The First Global Convention of People of Indian Origin was organized in New York, which attracted delegates from 26 countries. The convention passed 23 resolutions pertaining to the community issues with Govt. of India and human rights violations of PIOs around the world. The Global Organization of people Indian Origin (GOPIO) was formed at the convention. GOPIO has taken a leadership role on the human rights violations of PIOs and NRIs around the world as well as promoting interests of NRIs/PIOs with the U.N. and various governments and their agencies. Two successful issues taken up by GOPIO along with other community groups were the PIO Card and Dual Nationality.
To summarize further on some of the other points:
Image of the community – Because of our active community involvement through various India festivals, India Day parades, we have built a great image for India as well as for our communities across the country. Additionally, our Silicon Valley success, persons such as the late Astronaut Dr. Kalpana Chawla, musician Ravi Shanker, Nobel Laureates, Dr. Khorana and the late Dr. Chandrasekhar, the 60 minutes coverage of IIT graduates have all helped to improve the image of our community as well as India.
Higher Education – Our students have done very well in the national competition, e.g. Intel Competition, have gained admission to prestigious schools. However, there has been a trend in the Ivy League and other leading schools to limit highly qualified Asian students. As a community we need more involvement to fight this issue. Also, our community organizations need to develop programs to prepare our high school students in the competitions to gain admission to prestigious schools similar to what the Jewish community does for their students.
Corporate Ladder – The earlier problems we had in the 1970s and 1980s had somewhat solved. The CBS story on our IIT graduates will provide further boost to qualified people of our community in the corporate ladder.
Discrimination – Still there are discrimination in the workplaces, especially the universities. Our community groups have to fight this issue through EEOC and other agencies.
Helping India – The recently held Pravasi Bhratiya Divas in New Delhi in a way was recognition of our involvement to help India in various ways. However, I also want to point out that some section of our community also supported some disruptive movements in India for example, Khalistan Movement, Kashmir issue and even some allege the indirect support of the religious fanatic’s movement. We as a community should keep away from the internal politics of India as well as taking sides of highly charged divisive issues back home.
Political involvement – Some success, we need to be do more. We need to develop a long-term political agenda for the community.
Promoting India Studies at Universities – We have now close to about 10 universities involved in India related studies. This has been possible because of the community support and involvement.
Senior citizens – As our first generation reached to the retirement age, we just woke up on the issue of senior citizens of Indian origin. Community groups need to discuss this issue more and more. At some stage, we have to initiate Senior Citizens home and nursing home, where Indian food and/or vegetarian food will be served.
Tackling major issues – We have to take pro-active stand when major community related issues come up. In this regard, we have to work very closely with other Asian groups and other minorities.
Involving next generation to community organizations – I see this the toughest challenge. The first generation activists are aging. We need to promote the newer generation to take over our cultural and civic organizations.
Within the community, we always talk about the proliferation of our community organizations and disunity among our groups. If we look at the six million Jewish communities, they also have proliferation of organizations. However, they have created a perception of unity. And whenever major issues concerning Israel or the Jewish American community come up, they always work together. This is what we need to achieve. We know that the Jewish communities around the world had suffered in the first half of the last century. The question, before us is, do we have to go through the same suffering, for us to be united. I would say no. In early 2002, the unity effort in the White House briefing and the Congressional Luncheon organized by NFIA, AIA, and the Indian American Political Forum was in the right direction. In September 2002, at the Global Indian Entrepreneurs Conference organized by GOPIO, the presidents and presidents-elect/vice presents of the major four organizations got together and decided to work together on common issues including the legislative issues. Similar to the Jewish community, the time has come now to organize the “Conference of Presidents of Major Indian American Organizations.”
Friends, the 22 million people of Indian origin with their economic output of more than half of India’s GDP could make substantial contribution to India and countries with large PIO population. In this new global set up where the communication has become much easier and where the economic boundaries of countries have already broken, we PIOs and NRIs in turn constitute a nation of 22 million people, who could help each other as well as play a role in international peace. Let us combine our forces toward that direction.
Dr. Abraham has been serving the NRI/PIO community for the last 28 years. He founded the Federation of Indian Associations of New York, National Federation of Indian American Associations, and currently serves as the President of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Indian American Kerala Center in New York. Dr. Abraham also served as the Co-Chairman of India Chair Managing Committee at Columbia University, which established a chair for Indian studies at the University. Professionally, trained as a material scientist, Dr. Abraham is currently the Vice President of Business Communications Co., an industry and market research firm in Norwalk, CT. Dr. Abraham can be reached at GOPIO, P.O. Box 1413, Stamford, CT 06904, USA, Tel: 203/329-8010, Fax: 203/322-2233, E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org web: www.gopio.net